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When A Coworker Smells Like Alcohol

by Landmark Recovery

April 11, 2019
A man holding a coffee cup sits on another man's desk in an office while a woman looks on.

What happens if a coworker arrives at work smelling like alcohol? On the one hand, you don’t want to accuse a colleague of being intoxicated in front of others. You also don’t want to get someone fired if they are struggling with a crippling addiction. If their job involves operating heavy machinery, you may be afraid of them posing a risk to the health and safety of others.

For employers, the situation is even more complex. Accusing someone of being drunk on the job is serious business that could potentially trigger a lawsuit.

Signs a Coworker is Drunk on the Job

Look for these distinct signs before taking any action concerning a coworkers drinking behavior. Some common signs include:

  • smell of alcohol
  • loss of coordination
  • sweating
  • loud/slurred speech
  • lowered inhibitions
  • missing work

By following these guidelines, you can be best prepared to help your company, your fellow coworkers, and your employer. If a coworker is visibly drunk at work or you are concerned with their drinking before work, they will likely be showing visible signs of intoxication.

Smells Like Alcohol

They may smell like alcohol, with it either under their breath (which they may try to mask with mints) or, there will be an alcohol smell that emanates from their sweat as their body tries to process the alcohol.


They may appear slightly off their game, fumbling papers, dropping things, or having slow reaction times. They could be slightly stumbling or perhaps appear more disheveled than usual. Any kind of impairment that could affect their work or health is something to address immediately.


They could be sweating for no reason. All of a sudden they may appear to have a “hot flash” ie., sudden sweating, flush, and may even have cold sweat. This is the result of the body attempting to process the alcohol through its system.

Slurred Speech

Changes in speech are a sign that someone could be intoxicated. A person may talk louder than they normally do, have trouble pronouncing words or sound as if they have a thick tongue. These call all be effects of alcohol.

Lowered Inhibitions

Alcohol, a depressant, can lower people’s inhibitions, causing them to feel more comfortable in workplace setting than they really should be. An intoxicated person may use inappropriate language, and exhibit inappropriate behaviors.

Missing Workdays

If they frequently miss workdays in addition to displaying other signs of alcoholism, this is a strong indication that there are issues with drinking. They may frequently miss Mondays, leading to jokes such as, “Well it’s Monday, what did you expect?” According to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, the cost of absenteeism from alcoholics ranges from $33 billion to $68 billion a year.

What to Do When Your Coworker Smells Like Alcohol

A woman at work wondering what to do about her co-worker that smells like alcohol

If a coworker smells like alcohol, or you suspect that they could be abusing alcohol during or before office hours, there are specific actions you can take to best handle the situation. The first rule to remember is that even if they smell of alcohol it doesn’t necessarily mean they have been drinking at work or are under the influence of alcohol. The smell could be from the night before, from prescription medication, or strong aftershave/mouthwash.

The second rule to remember is that workplace alcohol tolerance is usually zero and employees are responsible for upholding these policies. You have an imperative as an employee to report behavior that violates workplace behavior. Fortunately, there are ways to handle this situation that can ensure your coworker maintains respect, integrity, and their job.

What to Say to a Coworker who is drunk

The first step would be to approach them directly and discreetly about your noticing the smell of alcohol or other signs of drinking. There’s nothing wrong with being concerned about a coworker, but they may be offended or become hostile. They may even try to manipulate you into thinking there is not a problem. If they insist that it’s a one-time incident or that there is no problem, do not push the issue.

Instead, take them for their word and continue as usual. Let them know you are available to talk to if they ever need help. Continue to be mindful of their behavior, and if they continue to display signs of intoxication at work or issues with drinking, then it is time to approach HR. After all, your co-worker may have a problem with drinking that’s beyond their control, and they may need help. This is an opportunity to be of service to them and try to let the person know that they can get help if they need it.

Talk to HR

In this type of situation, you should not go to your supervisor first. The first person you should speak with is Human Resources. They’re available to help employees with issues happening with other employees, and they also handle all medical benefits. Since addiction is a disease, your coworker can be protected from being fired thanks to the FMLA.

HR should be able to talk to your co-worker in a professional manner to let them know that their health insurance may cover treatment if necessary. HR is professionally trained to address issues such as these, so this take the issue out of your hands. If needed, Human Resources will talk to your supervisor about your coworker.

It’s very important that you understand that addiction is a legitimate illness, and many people don’t know that they have a problem with substance abuse. Most people acknowledge that intoxication before and during work is not alright, but an alcoholic often can’t help it. They may have been struggling with alcoholism for a long time, but you could be the first person to confront them about it. This might be the exact situation that they needed in order to seek professional treatment in order to overcome an addiction to alcohol or other drugs.

Can My Coworker Sue Me For Reporting an Addiction?

This depends on the basis of the report you give to HR. There is a large difference between reporting someone for suspected alcoholism vs. reporting someone for drinking on the job. If you see someone actively using drugs or alcohol while on the job, you should report it to HR immediately. Reporting a coworker for suspected alcoholism out of concern and without malicious intent is alright, but you still may be accused of libel.

How Do I Talk to My Coworker About Seeking Rehab?

Two coworkers talking about alcohol addiction over coffee

When it comes down to it, talking to a coworker about rehab depends on the level of familiarity you share. If you are close with a coworker, it may be appropriate to discuss treatment during off hours or perhaps at lunch. If you have few interactions, they may not be as receptive to what you are saying. If you are especially concerned but unable to approach them, it may be worth mentioning to a friend or family member of your coworker or enlisting the help of a certified interventionist.

Will My Coworker Lose Their Job?

They could. This depends on a number of factors. What is your coworkers current standing in the company? Have there been repeated absences, poor performance, or tardiness? Is your co-worker a contractor or “at-will” worker? If your coworker is only part time or has been with the company less than one year, they can be at risk for losing their job. The ADA and FMLA do NOT provide any special protection to individuals whose alcohol addiction is affecting job performance or is in violation of company policies. However, if the colleague who needs help with alcohol addiction meets the terms and conditions of FMLA and ADA, he or she cannot be terminated for going into alcohol addiction treatment.

Government Protections for Employees Going to Rehab

A government building in the United States

The United States federal government has specific protections in place that make it so anyone who enters a treatment facility for drug or alcohol addiction is automatically protected against job loss. The acts that protect you are the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

The FMLA sets requirements for employers to allow you to take sick leave. Since addiction is a disease, employers must treat it the same way as any other illness. Inpatient addiction treatment typically takes 30 days. All businesses, federal agencies, and government agencies must provide 12 weeks of unpaid sick leave for their employees. However, there are some requirements that must be met first.

“Your company must allow you to have up to 12 weeks of paid leave for addiction treatment.” – FMLA

This is great news for anyone suffering from addiction while employed, however, there are some requirements that must be met first. While you cannot be fired or unpaid for addiction treatment while employed, you and your company must meet the following requirements:

  • You must have been employed with the company for at least 12 months.
  • You must have worked at least 1,250 hours during the 12 months prior to the start of FMLA leave.
  • Your company must employ 50 or more employees within a 75-mile radius of the work site.

While you can’t be fired, the FMLA does not guarantee you will be paid during this time. One way to help supplement your income during this time is to apply for short-term disability. Short-term disability will guarantee you at least a portion of your pay while you are in treatment. In order to claim these protections, you will need apply for it.

How to Apply for FMLA

To apply for FMLA you will first need to make sure that you meet the above requirements. Then, you will need to inform your employer of your intention to take medical leave and that you wish to use FMLA. You may also inform them if you plan on applying for short-term disability. If you wish, you do not need to inform your employer that you are taking FMLA for addiction treatment. You are not allowed to begin taking unaccounted absences as these will not be covered by FMLA. If your employer refuses, you may be able to sue for discrimination.

“If your employer refuses to allow you the full 12 weeks of medical leave for addiction, or any other medical reasons, or you are penalized for your condition, you can sue for discrimination.”

If you also belong to a worker’s union, you may have additional protections in place. If your employer is contracted with a union, speak to your representative. You should be thoroughly prepared for entering treatment, and that starts with making sure your livelihood is protected.

Can You be Fired for Going to Rehab?

A woman wondering if she can attend rehab for alcohol addiction

If you do plan on using FMLA to cover addiction treatment, you must give your employer prior notice. If you fail to do so, you will not be protected by the FMLA and can be fired. However, if the employer has an established policy, applied in a non-discriminatory manner, that has been communicated to all employees, and that provides under certain circumstances an employee may be terminated for substance abuse, then pursuant to that policy the employee may be terminated regardless of whether he or she is presently taking FMLA leave. Here is the outline of the law as dictated by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Serious Health Condition – Leave for Treatment of Substance Abuse

“Treatment for substance abuse may be a serious health condition if the conditions for inpatient care and/or continuing treatment are met.”

“FMLA leave may only be taken for substance abuse treatment provided by a healthcare provider or by a provider of health care services on referral by a health care provider. Absence because of the employee’s use of the substance, rather than for treatment, does not qualify for FMLA leave.”

The employer may not take action against the employee because the employee has exercised his or her right to take FMLA leave for substance abuse treatment. However, if the employer has an established policy, applied in a non-discriminatory manner, that has been communicated to all employees, and that provides under certain circumstances an employee may be terminated for substance abuse, then pursuant to that policy the employee may be terminated regardless of whether he or she is presently taking FMLA leave.”

An employee may also take FMLA leave to care for a covered family member who is receiving treatment for substance abuse. The employer may not take action against an employee who is providing care for a covered family member receiving treatment for substance abuse.”

Does Your Coworker Need Addiction Treatment?

If you suspect your coworker is drinking too much, you should consider having a personal conversation if you feel comfortable approaching the subject. These conversations can be challenging, so be sure to reference some of Landmark Recovery’s free resources to help guide you in this effort. If you even suspect your colleague’s alcohol use is habitual or addictive, it is best to consult a licensed professional for assistance.

Contact the professional staff at the Landmark Recovery Admissions team to learn more about possible treatment options for your coworker, or visit our website to get more information about addiction, alcoholism, and how treatment works.

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About the Author

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery was founded with a determination to make addiction treatment accessible for all. Through our integrated treatment programs, we've helped thousands of people choose recovery over addiction and get back to life on their own terms. We're on a mission to save one million lives over the next century. We encourage all those struggling with substance use to seek professional help.